The Red Pill, Incels, and the Perils of Traditional Masculinity
The term incel (short for involuntarily celibate) was originally coined 25 years ago by a queer female scientist for whom romance was elusive. Headline-grabbing violent incidents like the Toronto van attack and the Tallahassee yoga studio shooting (both were committed by incel men) show how this group has morphed drastically since its start. Nonetheless, most people don't have a clear idea of what members of the incel community believe.
Also compelling is how many of the misogynistic beliefs found in incel online communities are found on sites that give dating advice to men, such as The Red Pill. If you're actively dating now, you may have even run into people who believe in the ideas discussed on these sites. So how concerned should one be about the pervasive entitlement and misogyny found online?
To answer this question, we read and analyzed about 400,000 words posted on Incel.is and The Red Pill, looking to summarize the beliefs about women, men, and dating presented there. What we found is that men in both communities believe that women and men are fundamentally different as a result of biology and evolution: men are rational and logical, and women are fickle and emotional. Posters present their advice as new, secret knowledge, but these beliefs are just a more extreme version of traditional gender stereotypes that have been around for years.
On both sites, the belief that men and women naturally develop into rigid gender roles means women are unable to escape their alleged subconscious motivation to be selfish in their interactions with men. Again and again, posters made it clear that they saw women as motivated to manipulate men, promiscuously satisfy their own sexual needs, and, most troubling, to trade sex for power.
The Red Pill divided all men into either Alphas or Betas. Alphas are men who are attractive and powerful and therefore sexually successful, truly the ideal of traditional masculinity. Betas are men who give women either financial support or, worse in their minds, emotional support. Betas are seen as men attempting to seduce women the wrong way, giving away their power instead of using it to seize a woman's attraction.
The Red Pill sees Alpha and Beta statuses within manhood as a choice, with nothing impossible for the man willing to put in the work. Because of this belief, most posters on The Red Pill tended to share advice to encourage others in their self-improvement journeys, both for improving physical fitness and dominating women.
The Incel community considers incels a third type of man, one who aspires to be an Alpha, but can never succeed due to physical or mental deficiencies beyond their control. Incels consider themselves impossible to shape into an Alpha and have internalized The Red Pill's misogynistic worldview too much to stoop to the behaviors of a Beta. So, they feel stuck: alone, miserable, and angry at the world for having to exist this way. Incel posters sometimes endorsed suicide, as well as sexual violence against women and mass violence, referencing past incel perpetrators like Elliot Roger and Alek Minassian.
The Red Pill and Incel are examples of how men face negative consequences no matter what their relationship with traditional masculinity is. Men who try to live up to the ideals of traditional masculinity endorse violating others. Violations like sexual aggressiveness are justified on The Red Pill, as seen in comments like these: "Because they [women] are the submissive inferior and thus you can do what you want with them & they take it. They're the doormats, you're the superior…"
On the Incel posts we read, men egged each other on to turn their hatred towards women and society into violence. As much can be seen in this comment encouraging others to commit mass violence as Elliot Roger (ER) did in 2014: "I wouldn't rest until every incel gets his revenge. Go ER or f**k with the femoids [women] for the sake of good ol' times."
This is where the mass violence that incels commit comes from: a community that turns this loathing into an endorsement of violence against others.
Clearly women are at risk from men who are part of the Red Pill or Incel communities, but there are negative consequences for men, too. Violating traditional masculinity norms can lead men to experience more depression and suicide. We saw this among Incel board members either plainly stating 'I want to kill myself' or going into more detail as in this comment: "i need to f**king die already. i live for nothing, and base pleasures do nothing for me. my fear of death is nothing compared to the fear of waking up in the morning."
The Red Pill and Incel communities are troubling and can be dangerous, but the purpose of this research was not just to better understand these men as the outliers that media, policing agencies, and counter-terrorism experts often frame them as, but to connect the ideologies of these men to its patriarchal, if not misogynistic, foundations. Addressing these dangers cannot stop at internet moderation and policing interventions. The solution requires all of us to look deeper at harmful traditional masculinity and misogyny that runs rampant on these sites, but also through our culture more broadly.
For Further Reading
Malamuth, N. (2003). Criminal and noncriminal sexual aggressors: Integrating psychopathy in a hierarchical-mediational confluence model. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 989, 33–58. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2003.tb07292.x
Vallerga, M., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2022). Hegemonic masculinities in the 'Manosphere': A thematic analysis of beliefs about men and women on The Red Pill and Incel. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 22(1), 602-625. https://doi.org/10.1111/asap.12308
Michael Vallerga is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he studies authoritarianism, masculinity, and conspiracy beliefs and how they are connected.
Eileen L. Zurbriggen is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she is also affiliated with the Feminist Studies department. Her research focuses on the intersections between power, objectification, sexuality, and gender, with an interest in connecting interpersonal interactions to larger social structures and issues.